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Listen to Groucho Marx - "I'm Against It"
The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection

(Sorry for the delay - writing these things takes longer than I thought, but it always does. The events below happened a week ago, but I think it's still worth trying to understand just what happened during that scant half hour at Queen's Park. Regularly scheduled unemployment-blogging will resume shortly, and thank you for your very nice e-mails - I'll try to respond this week.)

I WAS PLEASANTLY SURPRISED last Monday afternoon to see that Cheri Di Novo, my own MPP, was a member of the Standing Committee for Government Agencies that would be hearing Mark Steyn's testimony. I've been battling a sense of political disengagement for years now, like probably too many people who were raised in the '70s and came of age in the '80s; tenderized by Watergate and struck dumb by the anticipatory horror of the last years of the Cold War, we imbibed political fatalism with our mother's milk, and all too easily fell victim to tropes like Ralph Nader's fatuous pronouncement that "there's no difference between Democrats and Republicans."

Seeing Di Novo on the committee made me feel, albeit briefly, like a stakeholder in the spectacle I was about to witness. Not that I voted for her, or support her politics, which inevitably default to the position that there's nothing wrong with your life that a bracing jolt of state intervention won't cure - it's still my MPP up there, and I couldn't help but hope that, for at least a moment, she might give voice to some sliver of a notion that I'd recognize as integral to an idea I'd support. By the time I left the room, I'd be battling the gravitational pull of political fatalism again.

Queen's ParkAt the start of my first full week of post lay-off unemployment, I was joining my friends Kathy and Wendy in the support group that had gathered in the basement cafeteria at Queen's Park to hear Steyn give his recommendation to the provincial committee, during this brief window when it might be considering the fate of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. I hope I can be forgiven for imagining that, for a moment, there might have been some likelihood that the OHRC's mandate might have been seriously in jeopardy as a result of the committee's investigations, and that Mark's presence would speak to serious doubts about the legitimacy of the OHRC's actions in the past, and what it intends to do under the leadership of former Toronto mayor Barbara Hall.

I couldn't help but notice Steyn's affable, even cheerful mood in the moments before his testimony. I was expecting some nervousness, or a hint that he was anticipating an adversarial experience, but he seemed untroubled by the task ahead, though I suppose he's had some experience with this sort of thing by now, and in any case, at least this time he wasn't appearing in the role of defendant.

Steyn finally takes his place at the table facing the committee in the Amethyst Room, just next to the grand staircase in the lobby of Queen's Park, and I take in the room's apparatus. There's the translator on the left, behind glass in a soundproof booth, and the technicians - the legislature's A/V club, one presumes - at a raised table in the corner, running the closed circuit cameras and the graphics on the TV screens on three sides of the room. I notice that the trio of flat-panel LCDs mounted on the walls are the same make and size as my own at home. Finally, there are two recorders from Hansard, the official record of the legislature, to the right of the clerk and committee chair. The trappings of bureaucracy are all, competently and expensively, in place.

Steyn begins his allotted 30 minutes, and it doesn't take long to see that the role he'll be playing in today's spectacle is the hostile witness. The OHRC is, in his words, "incompatible with a free society," an out-of-control legal and bureaucratic entity that "far from reducing racism or sexism ... explicitly institutionalizes racism and sexism from its inability to view any dispute other than through the narrow prism of identity politics." It's strong language, and I have enough experience with government committees to know that it's not the sort of vehemence that's welcome from anyone but members of parliament, and only then within the free-for-all of Question Period.

He moves on to sly mockery, itemizing the articles of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the OHRC violates, before adding that "the good news is that Ontario is not in violation of as many articles as Sudan or North Korea." It gets a laugh from Mark's supporters in the visitor's gallery, but none at all from the Committee, who are basically being compared to cowed functionaries in the government of Kim Jong-Il. He calls Barbara Hall a "chief commissar."

He points out the implicit outcome of a Human Rights Tribunal is to punish defendants in a punitive sense contrary to the spirit of law in democratic western states, forcing them to carry the burden of defending themselves while plaintiffs are supported by the system that's presumed to be judging their case objectively. He quotes Locke's Second Treatise of Civil Government, and warns of the danger of state authority that can "dispose of the estates of the subject arbitrarily, or take any part of them at pleasure."

Finally, Steyn states that human rights commissions in Canada have become a law unto themselves, making up the rules as they go along to suit agendas more beholden to ideology than law, and insists finally that "free societies do not license ideologues."

The questions from the committee that follow are either friendly or hostile, largely depending on the questioner's party affiliation. MPP Lisa MacLeod brings up tribunal chair Michael Gottheil's assertion, from that morning's testimony, that in the contest between free speech and discrimination - a battle that human rights commissions seem purpose built to provoke - "neither trumps either." Steyn answers that he regards the notion of group rights - the cornerstone of accusations of discrimination without explicit threats to livelihood or rights to work or residence - as "antithetical to a mature democracy such as this province."

Randy Hillier is next, and muses aloud that "it's nice to hear people speaking freely," which seems disingenuous; the reason why Steyn is here - indeed, the reason why the OHRC is suddenly the subject of oversight and negative publicity such as it's never experienced in its history - is that people have been and are being threatened with official punishment for speaking freely. The implication - probably accidental on Hillier's part - is that this is a rare space where "speaking freely" is protected, a terrifying notion any way you look at it.

Di Novo is the next to have the floor, and uses the sort of rhetorical trick that I associate with university debating clubs - asking Steyn if, in his idea of free speech without government oversight, it would be protected expression for someone to put up a sign stating "No Jews Need Apply." Steyn immediately takes issue with the precedent she's invoking, arguing that the historical incident of this sort of discrimination - against Jews and Irish - was far less frequent than we presume.

Irish Need Not ApplyI think he's making a mistake. Arguing the historical veracity of the situation she's evoking doesn't matter in the mainstream worldview - if it happened just once, it's a crime against someone's human rights, a concept that, since it's understood to be universal (look at the title of the UN declaration), implies a crime against us all. It might be absurd, but it seems like a waste of breath, especially since what Di Novo is playing is basically a game of reverse devil's advocate, trying to get Steyn to say that he thinks it would be acceptable free speech for someone to post such a sign - a quote that would make a tasty sound bite with which to hammer Steyn's position. Thankfully, Steyn manages to avoid providing her with such an easy weapon, but by taking issue with her use of historical precedents, he takes the debate off topic.

It would have been better to point out that, whatever someone writes on a sign in the hope of restricting applicants in accordance with their own bigotry, there should be strong but simply-worded laws in place to deal with the problem, which don't stray into the vague and legally questionable realm of human rights tribunals, so open to abuse and ideological and social gerrymandering.

There's a part of me that's also willing to play devil's advocate, however, and suggest that it might be helpful if bigots were allowed to voice their preferences up front. If I were a Jew, I might like advance notice that my prospective employer is an anti-Semite, in order to avoid a potentially unbearable experience, and I can't see the salutary effect or even likeliness of forcing an anti-Semite to hire a Jew, in the hope that proxmity will somehow cure him of his bigotry.

By extension, I wonder if a more suitable comparision to Di Novo's precedent would be the near-to-last page of the CBC's online application to their human resources department, the one that obliges an applicant to answer questions on their gender and race, as part of the public corporation's affirmative action policy. What, practically, prevents one from calling it the digital equivalent of a "No White Males Need Apply" sign displayed prominently in the lobby of the corporation's Front Street headquarters?

I'm just asking, is all. After all, isn't it nice to hear everyone speaking so freely?

Steyn reacts with similar dismay to a question from MPP David Zimmer, who uses the "yelling fire in a crowded theatre" metaphor to rather unspecific effect. Even a week later, I'm not sure what Zimmer was asking, or the point he was trying to make, or even the strength of his conviction that there's possibly something wrong with fires, or yelling, or crowded theatres. Steyn reacts with palpable disgust - he's heard this one before, and can't disguise his impatience, but it prompts what comes off as a rant about the history of theatre electrification drawn on his own extensive knowledge of musical theatre.

Steyn calls it "a ludicrous metaphor," but it only has the effect of making Zimmer more defensive, and he keeps reframing it stubbornly. There's really no question there, just the ritual presentation of a rhetorical trope pressed into service too many times during debates about free speech, to decreasing effect. (I make a mental note of it all - I'd love write a book one day about how metaphor has become the anabolic steroid of conversation and debate, a device that usually ends up cheapening rhetoric and dissolving meaning. Mostly, though, I'd like to know if I can pay the rent by this summer - but I digress.)

After a final question by MPP Liz Sandals that tries to suggest that, as far as she can see, the OHRC hasn't transgressed on anyone's individual rights - a question that seems less a query than an attempt to put the statement on record - Steyn is out of time. Looking back, I can't help but think that Steyn made the cardinal mistake of trying to be clever - witty, thoughtful, sardonic, sarcastic, or simply just engaged - with the committee. Bureacracies aren't clever, and they react to any attempt to take the ritual of public oversight and consultation beyond a narrow rhetorical playing field with the impatience and even hostility a judge has for anyone who tries to defend themselves in court.

This is underlined when Terry Downey of the Ontario Federation of Labour takes Steyn's place, and begins by accusing him of trying to deny her freedom of speech while handing out a thick wad of literature in a red OFL folder. She mostly seems offended by his mistaken assumption that she was a man, and beyond that his temerity in disagreeing publicly with her role in the case the OHRC brought against Steyn and Maclean's magazine.

She begins by saying that, yes, the system need reform, but goes on to plead for more money to be given to the OHRC and its tribunal, so that more people can be hired as investigators and facilitators. The human rights system is a punitive punishment, she says, but against potential plaintiffs, poor minorities who lack access to the system, she insists, and who need lawyers to navigate the route to complainant status.

The OFL does its part to help, with staff and offices working explicitly in community outreach - trawling poor and immigrant communities for prospective complainants, it would seem. There should be more, not less, of the OHRC, Downey insists. It's a curious moment - Steyn and Downey are talking about the same thing, but another tired metaphor comes to mind: the blind men describing an elephant by talking about its component parts in isolation.

Downey's testimony is essentially a defense of bureaucracy, of the human rights type and its government umbrella, and it's no surprise that it's met warmly by the committee. "Thank you for your testimony," Di Novo says after she finishes. "I couldn't agree more with all of it."

Click here to read my interview with Mark Steyn

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© 2009 rick mcginnis all rights reserved

i'm a dad in my forties with two daughters. i've worked as a photographer, journalist and, recently, tv columnist. currently a member of the growing workforce awaiting new employment opportunities. church-going catholic.

punk rock was my crucible, lodestone and avalon.

i look nothing like william powell.

rick -at- rickmcginnis.com


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